Though I knew my mother’s genealogy, I knew nothing of my father’s. All I had were lost memories and tiny paper trails. It took a television series, HBO’s “Watchmen,” to inspire me to solve that half of my mystery.
My great grandmother left Chaney, France in 1946 as Odette Cotillion and arrived at Ellis Island as Odette Mendoza—a war bride happily married to my Mexican great grandfather Jesús Jesse Mendoza. In 2015, in a quiet hospice room, my father peacefully passed away. That day, a gnawing regret was born, incubated by questions left unasked. Who grows on my family tree? For many Black Americans, it’s a query that's frequently posed, culled from diaspora: first through the reverberations of slavery, then the Great Migration.
“Watchmen”—which mixes dystopian angst with superhero exploits—thoughtfully explores the importance of Black legacies and family trees through Angela Abar (Regina King): an African-American cop discovering the history of her long lost grandfather in the face of a government conspiracy. Her desperate search inspired me to investigate the roots of my paternal grandfather too, in an equally elusive but reverential journey connecting trauma and history.
Born through fear, Angela’s puzzle begins much like mine. In fact, Damon Lindelof provocatively opens his series with the 1921 Tulsa Oklahoma Massacre, which witnessed the local white populace murdering the town’s thriving Black citizens. In this episode, a Black army officer and his wife hide their young son Will Reeves in the trunk of a departing car while they stay behind in the ensuing slaughter. Like Will, my father Titus Daniels fled Amory, Mississippi at the age of 10. His step-father Frank punched a white man, and during the night, his weary family of sharecroppers hastily packed their car and moved to Chicago—the city where my paternal grandfather lived. For my dad, fearful of reprisal, it would take over a decade for him to visit his home state again.
Angela protects herself from retaliation too. Orphaned after her parents died from a terrorist attack in Vietnam, Angela never knew her father’s family. In fact, she barely knows herself. To many, she’s a retired cop now opening a bakery. But in actuality, as Sister Knight, she interrogates members of the Kavalry (a band of racist yokels wearing Rorschach masks) with her bare fists. Under the persona, she wears an intimidating black mask and hood, while spray painting her eyes Black—leaving her identity persistently in flux.
Unmoored from her family’s legacy, when Will approaches Angela, she’s unaware of his identity too. Instead, she only investigates him after the centenarian admits to killing the city’s police chief. Consequently, she probes the town’s heritage center. The facility stores the ancestral information of Tulsa Massacre’s Black victims. The center also features consoles dispensing coded acorns with automated audio tutorials by Henry Louis Gates Jr (former host of “Finding Your Roots” on PBS). Angela tests Will’s DNA, and receives an acorn to dispense in a tube that projects a holographic tree. She inquisitively taps several branches of the tree, agitatingly witnessing her family’s mysterious history appear in front of her eyes. When the tree’s automated voice asks her if she wishes to meet her grandparents, Angela nervously approves. The tree reveals a life-sized black and white photograph of her great grandparents with a young Will. He’s her grandfather. The unveiling is met with her dismay, empathy, and anger, and demonstrates the power of genealogical discovery—the angst of seeing the pictures of ghostly strangers—and a foreshadowing of Angela’s own ancestral trauma.
However, no legacy is completely captured in a photograph. We might feel astonishment at the sight of an undiscovered birth certificate, a census report, or even military records while searching Ancestry.com (or tapping on a holographic tree)—but as primary sources, documents lack context. Memories—though fallible—provide a richer story. Without them, familial histories are left unknown. Relatives could conceivably live in the same neighborhood but never know the other. When my father traveled back to Mississippi, he befriended a woman on the train. They hit it off, until he discovered at the next stop that she was his cousin.
Angela learns more of her shocking origins when she’s informed by Laurie Blake (Jean Smart)—a sarcastic FBI agent investigating the hanging of the police chief—that her grandfather was once a cop in New York City during the '40s, retired early, and fell off the grid. With each successive detail, a yearning to know more grows over Angela’s prying eyes. Her expression is familiar to me. I’ve looked through those eyes before, I’ve had her gaze. During my father’s final days, I built up the courage to ask about my grandfather. During the '70s, my dad owned a Chicago-based Gospel record label (Daniels Records). In 1974, when he was 33, he found himself stranded on tour when his father succumbed to cancer. The regret of not being there never left him. A regret made deeper since he didn’t own a single photo of his father. The subject, for years, typically remained locked away—especially as my dad came of age during the '40s and '50s, when outwardly expressing sorrow didn’t compute.
Nevertheless, during his final days, he told me my grandfather served during World War II.
“What was he?”
“A cook..,” he muttered with a slight sting. “They ain’t let Blacks do anyen’ else back then.”
“What was his name?”
Up to a certain generation, all the men in my family were named Titus—an attempt to create a lineage they must have known always remained under threat by structural inequities. While searching Ancestry, I found how unhelpful even the census proved, especially as many Southern Blacks were informally educated and lived in secluded rural areas during the '40s. For all I know, my grandfather spelled his name, Tidus or Tidis. Even my dad went to school in a one-room shack with earth for floors. And even when my roots are in sight, their ends remained frustratingly out of reach. Consequently, my father’s passing wasn’t just the loss of a man I knew for 25 years, a man who pored over bills and account statements to pocket extra pennies, our family lost a repository of culture. Apocryphal and whimsical, yet necessary memories of Grandpa Frank, Grandma Lily, their parents, and their parents, back to the connective fibers of America’s baneful heirloom to Blacks.
Angela feels the same mantle. In Episode 6, “This Extraordinary Being,” she abruptly swallows her grandfather’s Nostalgia pills. Developed to help dementia patients, Nostalgia capsules hold the memories the mind cannot. To these ends, Angela experiences Will’s memories through her consciousness. And in the process, discovers his hidden rage and superhero alias: Hooded Justice.
Will assumed the disguise—a noose hanging around his neck and a black hood—after his fellow officers tried to lynch him. His persona serves as an unconscious renegotiation of his pain and identity. Will used his trauma and anger—and the symbology of hate expressed through his costume—to fight the Ku Klux Klan with his bear hands. Like Angela, to dole out punishment with just his fists required tremendous fear and rage. Will’s cocktail of toxic memories, and the oppression he suffered and the daily massacres he witnessed, exemplifies a shared heirloom. Like Will, many Blacks who arrived North during the Great Migration carried an assortment of baggage filled with hopes and exasperations. Nevertheless, while they successfully escaped one set of hooded ghosts, they endured a different terror in the form of uniformed police—the cutting of branches from trees in a multi-generational genocide.
In Will’s memories, Angela also uncovers how his toxic memories forced his wife June to leave with their son (Angela’s father) back to Tulsa. Moreover, Angela implicitly connects Will’s trauma to her own. During Episode 7, we learn that her dad enlisted in Vietnam: a decision not altogether alien to Will and Angela, who became cops. All three unconsciously chose their professions to fight through their respective transgenerational trauma, morphing their worldview into a shared distrust of people who hide underneath masks and hoods—treating them as the destroyer of families.
I knew that same altered worldview. I sensed it in my father. For an oral history assignment, I interviewed my dad about growing up in the South. He talked to me while lying in bed, as CNN blared on the television. He plainly described how his family frighteningly hid underneath their porch when the KKK came looking for someone to lynch. He recounted coming to Chicago, only to fear the police and their beatings and their violent interrogations. He stood 5’ 5” and marched with King, like many other Chicagoans, and had a brick thrown at his head. During these painful recollections, while I stood by the side of the bed, he never looked me in the eyes. His gaze remained stoically fixed to the television. I wonder, if his gaze remained on the screen to help express what he’d rarely been willing to share. In 2008, when Obama ran for president, my dad believed with all his being that a Black man couldn’t win. His conviction wasn’t incited by an unwillingness for victory. Instead, he’d witnessed generations of strong Black voices gunned down. He didn’t wish to see another limb cut away. “This country hates us,” he would mumble. And though my dad lived a happy and joyful life—he aimed not to “give them a reason.”
Among my dad’s belongings, my mom found a paper trail: a photocopy of my father’s birth certificate. He requested it just before his death. On the certificate, listed under “Father of Child,” was “Tydus Daniel.” My grandfather’s first name was indeed spelled differently, and to my surprise, my family’s surname wasn’t “Daniels.” My prying eyes receded to dismay, slowly discovering a piece of myself left unsaved. I revisited Ancestry. There, I discovered my grandfather’s draft registration. Whoever prepared the document must’ve known how to spell “Titus” because on his draft form, his unsure looping signature featured the common spelling. Soon, I uncovered my great grandfather—also named Titus Daniel, and born in 1894—and his wife Margerette Mitchell, and his and her kin. And with each search, my inquisitive eyes alighted with greater excitement.
I also searched through Ellis Island’s records. My grandfather arrived through that optimistic entryway as a private in the American Air Force (ordinance). He came home from the war on the USS General J H McRae: a transport ship, on 15 Oct. 1945.
Nevertheless, even with my discoveries, I still feel regret and anger. Why didn’t I have the courage to ask my father earlier? Like Angela, I lived under a false security. The want to make the journey overshadowed by fear. Even with this piece, I struggled discerning how much I should share with how long I should search. I worried of becoming a trauma merchant, defined by experiences left repressed by those before me. Assembled like an emotional piñata, covered by tiny paper memories, waiting to existentially burst. But “Watchmen”—through Angela’s search for her grandfather—vicariously restored me. The information I discovered about my grandfather in some way completed me. And most importantly, they all: Grandma Lily, Grandpa Frank, my dad, grandfather, mother, and mother’s family—they remain a part of me. Connected by blood and branches, our wounds healed by our airs.